My mind the Sophist

July 31, 2009

Happiness is a butterfly, which, when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.”
Nathaniel Hawthorne

The wisest teachers of Philosophy, Life and Rhetoric in Ancient Mesopotamia were often described as “Sophists“. The word itself is derived from the Greek “Sophos” which quite literally translates to “the wise man“. Greek Poets soon became known as “Sophistes” because they were generally considered to be masters of teaching life through language. The term evolved to mean anyone who taught others their craft, through language. Wise men who could depart their skill using simple rhetoric.
Somewhere deep along the road of History, the term “Sophist” has evolved from that of a “wise man” to that of (according to philosophypages.com); “A plausible argument that is actually fallacious, especially when someone dishonestly presents it as if it were legitimate reasoning“. In other words, a lie. A clever manipulation.

And so, my question to myself today is; The human mind, is it sophist in the modern sense of the word, by nature?. I’d argue that it is. I am fully aware that our minds are made up entirely of experiences, memories, chemical reactions and as stated in a previous blog entry, almost Pavlovian in how we deal with associations, desires, loves and especially what we perceive to be happiness, among other emotional responses. That is simply my stance on the complexity of the workings of the human mind. And yet, I feel an odd sense of deception. A masterfully intelligible deception by the human mind. The feeling of love, is so incredibly deep rooted, I often question how such a powerful emotion is simply the result of a chemical reaction induced by experience and memory. It doesn’t seem possible. It would seem quite innate, other Worldly, even divinely inspired, if I were a believer. But even that explanation, to me, seems too simple, too convenient, and supremely illogical when taken to the extreme that some people will commit acts of atrocity in the name of love (or what they consider to be love). I’m fully aware that the concept of love (or what we, relatively, have came to believe is love), is intrinsically man made.

I do not myself know what I consider to be happiness. It is a confusing term, that I often conflict with contentedness. Friends will tell me they’re at the happiest when they’re around family and friends. Now, in general I’m content when I’m around family and friends, I’m much less stressed, and my intense need to stare at myself inwardly like I’m holding up a mirror and gazing at my thoughts quietly subsides to the back of my mind, when I’m around family (not so much, with friends). But, I associate the feeling of happiness with an intense pleasure that I continually wish to recapture, an ideal state of being, the most significant chase, the realisation of vain desires that we’re unable to surpress. Perhaps we were only truly happy, as children, when “worry” was a word we could not comprehend, and life was inexplicably brilliant. We’d sit and think “eat, play football with friends, chase girls, watch TV… I could get used to this life“, but soon it fades and you’re forced to search for new meaning to the rather obscure and ambiguous notion of happiness. You’re told that you will be truly happy if you buy as much shit as you can afford; a car bigger than your neighbours, or a new outfit with Armani scribed into the back, or a Playstation 3, or a holiday on a beach somewhere for a week before falling back into the abstract rat race. But none of that is true happiness, in fact, it has the utterly opposite affect on me. I’m horribly stubborn like that. And so perhaps that is my problem, and the great barrier I have to overcome. My own Berlin Wall separating contentment from happiness. My stubbornness, unable to come to terms with the knowledge that I am far from perfect, that I have deep flaws, that I cannot know everything, than I am nothing special, that I cannot be everything; my own Berlin Wall.

Perhaps we as humans are so connected to each other spiritually, that we need each other in order to achieve a sense of happiness. Family, friends, lovers, artists, musicians and so on. French writer, Marcel Proust once remarked “Let us be grateful to people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom” and whilst this is a beautiful use of language, it makes me wonder if my problem is that I’ve never met anyone who makes me feel magnificently happy. Perhaps my problem is that I’m suspicious of people in general, their motives, and so struggle to allow someone to make me feel happy. Which, in itself, causes unhappiness? But then, (you’ll soon start to realise why I want to wake up screaming in anguish most mornings) I have to ask, what is unhappiness? Because whilst I’m certainly not happy, I’m also certainly not unhappy, I simply, am.

Perhaps happiness exists not on a continuous flowing river, but on fleeting moments, one after the other, tiny side streams of pleasure, whilst the normal lugubrious, useless World flows by on that continuous river. A smile on a train station platform from a woman you quite like the look of, or a soft kiss on the cheek, or the moment you read in a book something that you instantly relate to and no longer feel alone, or an act of great kindness. Perhaps those moments, those positively shocking moments, are the building blocks of pure happiness.

Contemplation of life, does not make me happy, and yet, I cannot bring myself to ignore the need to contemplate, because if I were to ignore it, I’d feel ashamed of the ignorance I’d be portraying. It’s a trap. There is no happiness in contemplation, and there is no happiness in ignorance (I suspect that if deep contemplation has never graced your thought patterns, then ignorance may provide a much more pleasant existence). I have mentioned previously, that I only ever feel utterly calm; when I have escaped to the serenity of solitude when I’m sat on rocks, overlooking a vast tranquil, lifeless ocean in the early morning. The mellifluous sounds soothe me, and sky that seems to be conflicting with itself over what colour it should be; reds, blues, yellows mixing together. It calms me. I suppose it does make me happy, but soon the tide pulls out and is replaced by the millions upon millions of questioning and contemplating grains of sand. The morning lights flickering in a brand new posh hotel will provoke my mind into thinking “All that space, and they put a hotel for rich people up, what about homes for people who need it most?” And so the torment begins again. Whilst I call it torment (and here’s where my sophist mind plays it’s deceitful tricks on me), I’d feel disgustingly ignorant if I were to unquestioningly acquiesce to life (or what society tells me is “life“). So perhaps my ever weak questioning mind is the height of happiness for me? Or perhaps it’s all just one big mind trick. If there is a God, and he made me this way, I want an explanation and my money back. What actually is happiness? Is it an absolute emotion meticulously ingrained into each and every one of us, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s butterfly that shouldn’t be chased? Or is it that a man once felt an overwhelming sense of subjective joy and invented a concept to fit the experience? Have I ever experienced it?

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Purpose isn’t

July 5, 2009

“Where am I? Who am I? How came I here? What is this thing called the world? What does this world mean? Who is it that has lured me into the world? Why was I not consulted, why not made acquainted with its manners and customs instead of throwing me into the ranks, as if I had been bought by a kidnapper, a dealer in souls? How did I obtain an interest in this big enterprise they call reality? Why should I have an interest in it? Is it not a voluntary concern? And if I am to be compelled to take part in it, where is the director? I should like to make a remark to him. Is there no director? Whither shall I turn with my complaint?”
– Soren Kierkegaard

I do apologise for banging on in this tone, but I really do need to try to articulate myself as fully as possible, just to try to understand myself. Writing on here, is like untying what seems initially like an endless plethora of knotted thoughts.

I really do want to start concentrating on my political opinions again, but it’s a monumentously difficult task, when I feel like I’m descending into madness. Okay perhaps it isn’t that serious, but I cannot think on my usual level, I feel trapped in some kind of whirlwind of thoughts and feelings that just cannot be articulated in any particular way, or any particular outlet, as my previous blog entry proved. Chances are, I wont be able to concentrate on actual Political issues for a week or two. I hate when I go into this odd mode. It’s a little demoralising.

My mind becomes a mix of thoughts, surrounding the eternally unanswerable existential question; what the fuck is the point of me?. I’m coming to the horrible realisation, that perhaps there is no point to me. Perhaps “purpose” is a man made concept that outside of our quite ignorant version of reality, is actually a big empty nothingness; meaningless. Perhaps I have no purpose. Perhaps every hour of every day I spend either working or learning, is ultimately pointless. Perhaps all I’m doing is existing. Perhaps the laws of cause and affect apply only to the past and the present, there is no future goal. Perhaps, there is no future. Professor of Law at Harvard, Roger Fisher, once remarked “There is a fundamental human need for guiding ideals that give meaning to our actions”. Perhaps there is no absolute, black and white meaning to our actions. And so, by that logic, perhaps purpose is, as previously suggested, merely another man made concept designed to worry each one of us. Even if I’m horribly wrong, that’s how my mind currently operates, and I don’t know how to change it. Perhaps absurdism is in essence, making an important point that man’s search for harmony and reason, is at odds with the very nature of a chaotic, disorganised and ultimately meaningless universe that he inhabits. Perhaps the smell of the Office at 9am every morning, is as potent and soulful as life for some of us is ever likely to get. Perhaps the only worthy purpose, is the preservation of the species, improving the quality of life and maximising the chance of happiness for everyone. Because as once stated by Buddhist Philosophy Gyatso in “The Art of Happiness” – the purpose of life, is the chase for happiness. The chase itself though, is fucking difficult, especially for me. It’s confusing. It is the only aspect of life, that can bring me close to tears, because I’m forever locked into this relentless battle in my mind, that I cannot escape. However, and quite the juxtaposition, the realisation and acceptance that your existence is relatively nonsensical is almost a great weight off of your shoulders. I want more from life, and yet, perhaps there isn’t more.

This isn’t to say I’m depressed, or emotionally woren out. I do love life. I love the subtleties. I love people. I love the natural World, which I’ve started to appreciate a hell of a lot more recently. I love the feeling of extreme tranquillity. And I love how calm I am. I wonder though, what my value is to anyone. If anyone actually gives a shit. And I just absolutely hate that there’s a set path we’re all expected to take. There is almost a framework that we must all cling to, and build on. We must all be educated a certain way; jump into a career that we’ve been pressured into choosing for quite some time as soon as possible; earn lots of money; have a holiday once a year; feel utterly demoralised by a job you hate; ignore or embrace as little as possible any externalities that actually make us who we are; retire; die. I do not like that framework, and yet that’s the only way to live. It’s forced upon us. We are told how the World works, forced to understand beauty and serenity, and yet, no one understands it. Not me, not a scientist, not a businessman. The World, humanity, is a great mystery.

“With me, the present is forever, and forever is always shifting, flowing, melting. This second is life. And when it is gone it is dead. But you can’t start over with each new second. You have to judge by what is dead. It’s like quicksand… hopeless from the start.”
– Sylvia Plath

The only way I can describe my need to question everything around me (which by the way, irritates me endlessly) is to compare it. I had this conversation with a friend the other day. I do not see anything in black and white. There are no absolutes with me. There are multiple shades of grey. Everything is obscure. As pointed out in another blog I wrote not too long ago, language itself confuses me, and demoralises me, and strips away beauty for me. It is like viewing the entire World through a frosted window. Nothing is obvious. It is a skewed reality. But then, my argument is, that my frosted window reality, may be just as ridiculously meaningless as what others consider to be their clear windowed version of reality. Someone said to me not too long ago “do you always have to question everything, can you not just accept things as they are?“. I was quite taken aback by it. I immediately thought “My way must be wrong“. It added to the confusion. When people challenge my vision of life, I tend to worry that I’m horribly wrong.

I constantly need attention when I start to feel like this. And I start to feel like this every few months I constantly need to be listened to. I constantly need to be reassured. But a paradox of wanting to express my deeply mixed feelings, in a fountain of words, at the same time, forcing myself to keep quiet through the unnerving fear that I’m disastrously boring everyone around me, is quite the challenge to overcome. An incessantly tormenting empty feeling, like I have nothing to cling on to, or put my full attention into. It’s almost hopeless, like standing in the middle of a twister, where everything around you is chaotic; and yet you’re in blissful ignorance and the calmness of the centre, but you cannot get out. You’re stuck. You can either jump into the madness and hope you keep up, or you can exist on this quite serene yet ultimately isolated and lonely plain. Either way, you’re stuck.

French Author and Philosopher, Albert Camus once said “There is not love of life without despair about life”. It’s a voice I find myself deeply fond of, because it speaks on my current level. Not a suicidal, angry, depressive level. Simply a questioning, reasoning level, like a child trying to figure the World out.